Friday, 5 September 2008

In which I reveal my most embarrassing and dangerous musical moments

As a decidedly amateur musician, I have had my fair share of embarrassing musical mishaps with a large audience watching, plus many more with a small audience in attendance.*

I started playing the piano nearly 20 years ago, when I was seven. I started to play the organ about 10 years ago, when Dave the Organist offered to teach me. Recently, he said that it had been a pleasant diversion, but I think that he may have been looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, as I did not practise nearly enough for his liking. I think that he might have known what I am capable of. I hate it when people work that out - they start to expect things of me.

However, I was a useful person to have around, as I was able to take over much of the musical side of the service, leaving him free to stay in bed/go on holiday, a couple of times. I also occasionally played the piano for a few hymns during the service, as Dave was not a pianist.

On one such occasion, I think that I was playing the service on my own; I know that I was on the piano at the time. I do not remember the hymn, nor do I remember having any problems playing it. I suspect that the "music" group may have been doing their thing, but cannot be sure.

As I played the hymn, some time within the first verse I noticed a commotion in the congregation: some old guy had keeled over, taking some old dear with him (like giant dominoes). People went to see whether or not he was OK, but I did not know what to do. Nobody ever tells you what to do in this sort of situation. I had to improvise.

On the one hand, finishing the hymn seemed to be an awkward choice, as I didn't know whether or not this was a wildly inappropriate thing to do. Nor did I want to trail off and cause an awkward silence punctuated by the noises of first aid and summoning of ambulances, where there had previously been awkward singing.

I finished playing the hymn. Next time somebody keels over, I shall probably do the same thing. I shall keep a note of the hymn, though, just in case it turns out to be significant. It could be a good weapon to use on recalcitrant congregations. I suspect the vicar was glad of the thinking space. I seem to recall him finishing the hymn, too. I may have made that up.

Domino guy didn't die in the end. I was glad about that. Domino lady was fine, too, albeit a little shaken.

That was not overly embarrassing; to the best of my knowledge, he would have keeled over had I not been playing, except that he would have been unlikely to be standing up and singing had there been no musical accompaniment. Mind you, one never knows.

A far more embarrassing incident** occurred when I got my first organist job. Before the first hymn I was nervous, and rightly so (notice a theme here?). As I was determined to be a proper organist, I used the pedals. I had about two weeks to practise before the service, and had been able to make it so that I could play all of the hymns, although they were a bit shaky. Alas, the first hymn did not start well, nor did it continue well, nor did it finish well. To be fair, by the third verse it was possible to make out which hymn it was that I was trying to play, but I think that I lost the confidence of the congregation. However, I did well really. I kept going. They always tell you how important it is to keep going, and I did just that. Well done me. A lesser*** organist would have given up after the introduction and started again.

On the plus side, whenever I have to do something which has the potential to be embarrassing, I ask myself whether it could be as embarrassing as that hymn. The answer is always no. It was character-building.

I have since learned that being a proper organist is over-rated; getting the notes right**** is much more important. People are more likely to believe I can play the thing if they think I am getting the notes right. This was reinforced at my recent wedding. Must not make that mistake again, again.

Now it never gets any worse than messing up half a verse repeatedly. On Sunday it was going very well until I realised that I had left an important hymn book at home. I messed up the next bar. Never think of things while playing. Fortunately, I was able to use the church's copy, which lives to the side of the organ.

I occasionally forget how to read music just before the start of a hymn, too. That is inconvenient; it makes choosing the starting notes rather challenging. Perhaps when I am more experienced this won't happen to me any more.

Of course, my current organ causes all manner of problems. I spoke to the guy who put it all together, and he was pointing out where all of the different bits came from. The case either came from somebody's house or from a school in Preston. The stool came from a church in Caton. Five of the pipes came from our mother church (the dodgy-sounding ones). I lost track after that.

Organs use a variety of different methods to get a pipe to sound when a key is pressed. My organ is unusual in that it has two manuals (keyboards - two is usual) with two different methods of communicating with the pipes. The top manual uses a tracker action, which is where the keys communicate with the pipes via a load of interconnected rods, and the bottom manual uses a tracker action for one set of pipes and an electric action for the rest. With the electric action, every time a key is pressed, an electrical circuit is completed; this (I think) activates an electro-magnet which allows air into the pipe. It is all very complicated. The pedals are just electric action.

Anyway, the tracker action (the one with the rods) is great - when you press the key, the note sounds. With the electric action, we are not always so lucky.

I have a book called "The Organ Today", which was published in 1967. The electric action I have is illustrated in this book, which suggests that it was up-to-date at that point. I believe that it has now been superseded at least twice since then, and for good reason. A lot of oxidation builds up at a certain point in the circuit, and when this happens, the note often will not sound. Each pipe has its own circuit (as I said, it is very complicated), so oxidation on one piece of metal will not affect the other notes. However, I often lose notes during the service. They can be playing quite happily one minute, and gone the next. If I hold down the note, push the stop (i.e. the sound selector) back in (to stop the sound) and pull it out again (to re-start the sound), the note will usually come back, but I cannot do this during a service. I therefore often have notes missing, which sounds as though I do not know what I am doing.

Another lovely little quirk my organ has is to do with its couplers. The couplers link the two manuals together, so that everything I play on the main manual is also played on the secondary manual - it presses the notes down in what some consider to be a ghostly fashion. Have a look here for a guy playing something on the organ with lots of manuals coupled together. Mine does that, but with just two manuals.

The coupler is a useful device - it means that you can use stops (and thus sets of pipes making particular sounds) on both manuals, and also that you can use more stops and so play more loudly. The only way to use all of the stops properly is to couple them together.

However the coupler does not work for one note, that note being G above middle C, which is right in the middle of most women's singing range, and gets used in most hymns. What this means is that, when using the coupler, there is a little gap whenever I play that G. When the stops I use sound really similar, or where the main manual is making a louder sound than the secondary one, this is not noticeable. Unfortunately, my congregation do not sing loudly enough for me to play loudly on the main manual, so I have to create the additional volume from the quieter second manual. To make people follow the hymns better, I use one stop which is an octave higher than normal for most hymns.***** This means that if I couple the two manuals together, it drops down an octave every time I reach that particular G. This sounds absolutely terrible, and has caused me to stop what I was playing, apologise to the congregation and start again (but with different stops). Once I worked out what was happening, it made my life ever so slightly easier.

The organ has other, more serious problems, but they do not disrupt it so much. They're only massive structural damage, rather than notes not sounding. I mean, how bad can it be, really?

*What? You mean the congregation aren't there to listen to me? Philistines.

**This is the most embarrassing incident to which I am prepared to admit. It is also the most embarrassing incident I can remember, except for that one.****** I suspect this may be due to selective amnesia, combined with my family not knowing about whatever embarrassing memories I have buried and thus not repeating them back at me at awkward moments.

***For "lesser", you are welcome to read "sensible".

****That is to say, the congregation believes I got the notes right.

*****This does actually seem to work. To make them keep up, you make sure the bass notes are also played an octave lower (i.e. use the pedals).

******You know, the one where I... No. Not going to happen.

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